"Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing baby" – Marvin Gaye
The heavy sighs and ooh’s and ah’s murmured over the word “truffle” begin before sentences are completed or dishes are even tasted. What we aren’t hearing is its “oil,” counterpart, which explains so much - and so little. You really need to know, you’ve needed to know for a long time, and we’re not sure why no one’s really ever told you: truffle oil isn’t made from real truffles.
The aroma of truffle is not earth-born; it’s laboratory indigenous. The 3 ounces you bought for 35$ a pop has nothing to do with a mushroom. If you were buying a 3-ounce bottle of real, bona-fide truffle oil (which barely exists), it would set you back close to $300. Truffle oil is actually made from a compound deliciously named 2,4-Dithiapentane which is a petroleum product that’s mixed together with olive oil to create the mock stuff. Oh yeah - it’s also a derivative of formaldehyde and the chemical reaction that’s created is basically the same as that of bad breath and farts. So, ‘nuff said. We suppose truffle oil’s PR team really had a fun time stretching this one out to come up with the popular nuance that “truffle oil smells of sex” (which is almost equally as gross, but nonetheless more intriguing - sex sells).
What you may not realize is that while smelling good, the oil actually tastes unpleasant. It’s shocking that so many chefs are adamant about fresh ingredients, yet many seem to be just fine with using a chemical alternative to a respected ingredient. Truffle oil generates instant praise from diners because of its association with luxury and the exotic (which are two words that most definitely should be associated - with the real thing). Thing is, not many people know much about these precious fungi. Restaurants can get the stuff fairly cheap, so you’d better believe they’d up-charge ya just to eat its name. Every classic American restaurant dish has been inundated with “truffle” at one point or another. We’ve all ogled the $20 “truffle infused mac and cheese,”…and we’ve all probably ordered it.
It seems as though imitations get called out fairly quickly in the culinary world. Why didn’t Anthony Bourdain’s quote back in 2005 stick when he called truffle oil “the ketchup of the middle class”? Where’s a Gwenyth Paltrow Goop expose when you need one? Truffle got dismissed without a charge. If you find yourself shopping with a starry-eyed foodie friend and you see them reaching for a bottle, you may need to bring up your formaldehyde research.